Review of 'what if?'

what if? by Randall Munroe

“what if?”, “Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” is, as it is titled, serious answers to absurd questions submitted via the website of author of webcomic xkcd Randall Munroe who just happens to have worked for NASA as an engineer. The book is structured in chapters featuring a different insane question such as “What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained it's velocity?”, “If two immortal people were placed on opposite sides of an uninhabited Earthlike planet, how long would it take them to find each other?”, and “What is the longest possible sunset you can experience while driving, assuming we are observing the speed limit and driving on paved roads?”. All of the questions are scientifically answered but with Randall's trademark whit and his famous stick-character illustrations. Interspersed are also a number of “Weird (and worrying) questions from the what if? inbox” that are simply too bizarre to contemplate an answer. The final section are some excerpts from the second “what if?” book.

For many of the questions here I could not help but laugh out loud at Randall's answers as he attempts to unravel the scientific answers to the questions with tongue firmly in cheek. It seems most of the questions seem to result in dire consequences for our planet and/or solar system which perhaps speaks to the somewhat free-thinking minds of xkcd readers. Though the book should be quite accessible to most readers there is a distinctly fan-boy slant to the material with references to aspects of Science Fiction and popular culture that may be missed by some very much like his xkcd webcomic. I did find some of his (amusing) digressions somewhat missed the point of the question but I suppose that is not really the point, this is a book more for amusement than anything else, and in this it very much accomplishes that goal.

A frequently laugh-out-loud selection of silly/absurd/insane questions with (fairly) serious answers that will keep nerds and other interested readers entertained but not overwhelmed with a lot of scientific pedantry. I will definitely be looking out for the second book.

Rating: “I have absolutely no complaints”

Review Date: 2023-09-24

Genre: Non-Fiction

Publisher: John Murray

Publication Date: 2014

ISBN: 9781848549562

Other reviewed books by Randall Munroe: